Dean Alan Jones: Science and Religion and The Quest For Meaning

9848347What is the meaning of life? It looks as if there are two basic ways of human exploration into meaning and purpose — fact finding and story-telling, and we get into a mess when we confuse the two. How are they related? Is conflict between them endemic? It is not only a matter of what we think but how we think and what we think with. What might the human project be about, if anything, and how do science and religion speak to the question, what manner of beings are we? What are the “facts”? What are the narratives? Is human purpose an artifact or is purpose a transcendent gift? We are in the presence of and interpenetrated by such an intractable mystery that words collapse and stories are all we have? But what kind of stories should we tell ourselves and how do we discriminate between the good and the bad? What makes us think that we are significant and how do we move from our wild improbability to a sense of meaning and purpose? Is the affirmation of significance merely wishful thinking? Even the most militant of atheists live as if their lives are somehow significant even it they believe the whole business is meaningless.

The mystical tradition teaches us that the meaning of life is found in surrendering one’s life to a higher purpose. Actually, this doesn’t tell us much, because someone’s “higher purpose” may be to “kill all the infidels”! So what is the test? Love and compassion, a sense of solidarity with others? As the tradition tells us, the purpose of life is “to love and be loved – (amare et amari).

In order to do this we need a social network (but not The Social Network). Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits – none of this is important . . . a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other . . .” Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not A Gadget points out that people reduce themselves because of information technologies. We want to fit in and fitting in might mean lopping off something precious. “Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality.” This is a key phrase for our time: information underrepresents reality. So, please don’t read this little piece on “the meaning of life” for some information! There is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a “person”. When life is turned into a data-base there is degradation. “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks,” writes Zadie Smith.  “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself,” writes Jaron Lanier. Religion at its best can be a life-giving corrective because it understands that “what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion” (Lanier). The way forward is our recovering the truth that a person is a mystery – a mystery to the world and to herself/himself – a mystery designed for that kind of connection which is communion.

We can’t live without some way of interpreting our lives. No one is totally devoid of ideology, myth, story and religion – the lenses through which we see the world. Everyone needs some version of Facebook – a way of connecting with others – even if it is simply tribal and local. It is easy to appreciate the lure of fundamentalism as a great connector. It’s one way to combat our sense of isolation by offering a clear and unequivocal “answer” to every “question.” Fundamentalism identifies “enemies” and having enemies is a great unifier and connector. Fundamentalism of whatever variety promise safety and certainty. It is as attractive as it is deadly. The way forward is by our seeing the connections that are already there – the ever-present promise of communion and that most demanding of all questions – what does it mean to be human?

And three thoughts to end with . . .

In Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, Be Near Me, Mrs. Poole – the priest’s (Father David’s) housekeeper – she has aggressive cancer and wants him to be honest with her – and not simply tell her that everything will be all right. She rebukes him: “It is not your job to understand. It is not your job to make things smaller that they are . . . I expect more than that from you. I expect you to help me prepare for death.”

“The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” Herbert Kelly, SSM.

“Everything that happens to us is our curriculum!” Ram Dass


~The Very Reverend Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus, Grace Cathedral

Copyright © 2015 Excellence Reporter

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